The ROBOTS Are Coming! (Dec, 1953)

Excellent article focusing on robots and computers (they didn’t really distinguish between the two at this point). Topics include: self-driving cars, robot elephants, prime number crunching computers, automatic factories, automatic sewing machines, etc. It even mentions self replicating Von Neumann machines.

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The ROBOTS Are Coming!

Our civilization is being invaded by a horde of mechanical men who are determined to change our way of life. But there’s no need to worry. It’s all in the spirit of good fellowship.

By Lester David

A STRANGE, awesome army of Things is invading the planet Earth!

This is not science fiction but cold fact. The Vanguard of this army is here already and has secured a firm beachhead. A vast body of others is on the way.

These weird monsters are busy altering your world even now. Within the next several decades, after they are firmly entrenched in farm, home, laboratory and factory, your work, your habits, your entire life will be unrecognizable.

Nothing can stop them! But don’t be alarmed —this is a friendly invasion by an army which man himself is now busily creating.

These, you see, are the robots and this is how they will change your way of living:

Take John Q. Doakes, American citizen, not many years hence. He hops out of bed, goes downstairs and finds a piping hot breakfast waiting for him. It wasn’t prepared by his wife and he has no housemaid. A robot did it while he was asleep. It’s a gleaming machine into which Mr. Doakes had put raw breakfast food the night before and simply set the dials when he retired. He dialed what he wanted for breakfast, how he wanted it done, and what time he wanted it ready. The machine did the rest.

There’s never any mess or bother about fixing meals at Joe’s house. His wife just stocks the machine with supplies, sets the controls and has all the free time she wants. Now Mr. Doakes picks up the morning paper at his door, saunters to the garage, gets into his car. He starts the motor, hits the highway, tinkers with some buttons— then he opens his newspaper and gets thoroughly engrossed in the sports section. The road is jammed with other cars and the drivers are all either reading papers or gazing idly out the windows. Some are even catching last-minute snoozes. The autos, you see, are being driven by robots! In other words, these are automatic automobiles which go by themselves, slow down when other cars in front slow down, stop when they stop. The secret: intricate control mechanisms guided by cables imbedded in the highways.

Doakes gets to his place of work, an enormous food-canning factory. He walks through the main plant but there isn’t a human being around. He goes to his office, a large room set with rows of dials. He sits at a panel along with other control men and reaches for the handles, buttons and knobs. Instantly, robots go to work on the factory floor. They begin to sort, pack and can fruit. They deftly pick out imperfect fruit and toss them aside. They channel large, medium and small ones into their proper chutes; they slice, can, add syrup, label and even address crates. It’s all done with magnificently sensitive steel claws which respond perfectly to the touch of a button on the master control board.

And so it goes in every manufacturing plant. Tedious work which formerly had to be done by human hands and brawn is now taken over by the educated fingers of the giant robot machines which pack just the right number of olives in a bottle, put large appliances together with unerring accuracy, tie, wrap, stack, load and even transport by themselves.

While Joe is at work, Mrs. Doakes has gone to the library for information on how to make a dress for her small daughter. She no longer has to dig through card catalogues, wait for her books to come down and take laborious notes. She simply sets some dials and immediately a list of books flashes on a large screen in front of her. She presses another button and a photostat of the list pops out.

Now she goes to another section of the library, whirls more dials from the data on the photostat and a moment later she walks home, copies of all the information she had wanted folded neatly in her purse.

At home, she studies the instructions, then approaches her sewing machine. But it’s nothing like the ones you know. She inserts the proper amount of material, sets it and goes out to play bridge with the girls. When she gets back that afternoon, there will be a brand new dress, the exact size and fashion she wanted, ready to be worn by her daughter.

Comes the weekend and Joe will want to mow his lawn. He gets out the folding chair, pours a glass of beer, opens a magazine and starts mowing. He mows by pressing buttons. And responding to the buttons is a robot which shears the grass wherever Joe dictates. It’s an automatically controlled mower, stopping, starting, turning and backing on command.

Does all this sound like pure fantasy? It certainly does, but the jolting, eye-bugging truth is that the foremost electronics scientists of the country are certain that these, and many other breathless wonders, will come to pass before long.

Edmund C. Berkeley, one of the world’s most brilliant mathematicians, believes that the development of robot brains will ultimately be as important to human welfare as the taming of atomic energy!

Athelstan Spilhaus, research director of the New York University College of Engineering, flatly states: “We are on the verge of a social revolution that will alter our world even more than did the Industrial Revolution of the last century.” The famed Norbert Wiener, MIT professor known as the father of the electronic brain, is convinced that its principles can be used to make artificial arms and legs with which an amputee can actually feel.

The fact is that electronic scientists have been working quietly in laboratories and research centers, fashioning modern genii with astonishing powers. Incredible advances have already been made.

Before they started serious work, robots were merely huge, cumbersome playthings, gadgets such as the monstrous mechanical man who delighted visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair by doing little else than -jerking his limbs and speaking (through recordings, of course) in a tinny voice. Science has gone far beyond this primitive automatic man. There are already more than 1,000 different varieties of robots, each performing a new kind of magic, and more are being produced all the time.

Just look at what robots are doing right now!

A plane crashes in mid-ocean or in a desolate, mountainous region. Rescue craft roar out and the hunt begins. The planes criss-cross the area—sometimes they find the wreckage, sometimes the search is fruitless. It’s hit or miss.

But now -a robot system has been developed by the U. S. Air Rescue Service of the Air Force that takes all the guessing out of finding downed aircraft. It pinpoints the exact spot where the crash occurred and permits rescuers to get there while there’s still time to pick up survivors.

Here’s how it works: near the tail of the plane as it wings along is a Crash Beacon Locator. When a crash is imminent, the pilot can release it manually. If he can’t, the beacon throws itself out as soon as the craft hits.

Immediately after the crash, the beacon goes into action. It extends its antenna and starts sending out distress messages automatically—plus the serial number of the plane and a code letter representing the time elapsed since the crash. This vital information is received at several remote direction-finding stations which feed it into a central headquarters. An operator can put his finger on the exact spot on the map where the plane went down. And out go the rescue craft.

The system was perfected by the Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, at the request of the Air Rescue Service. A beacon has already been made and tested, direction-finding stations are being developed and it won’t be long before the whole thing goes into active operation. This robot will save untold numbers of lives.

See what robots are doing on other fronts. David Packard of Palo Alto, Calif., found hoeing backbreaking work. He invented a robot hoe which can thin out plants and weeds faster than 20 farmhands working manually. The U. S. Navy now has a robot helmsman on its aircraft carriers. It keeps a carrier on a straight course at all times and compensates for wind and drift. More, it can be controlled by voice —officers “speak” to it by means of walkie-talkies carried on the decks. A robot in the elevator of a Boston department store saves wear and tear on the operator’s larynx. It calls out cheerfully: “Fourth floor, misses’ dresses, sweaters, spoils-wear …”

The robot is already an immeasurable boon to industry. It speeds things up, cuts corners, does in a matter of seconds what used to consume hours and even days and weeks. As just one example, take the direct-reading spectrometer. In a steel mill, the crew takes a sample of molten metal from the furnace and sends it via pneumatic tube to the laboratory. The foreman wants to know the concentration of various elements in the specimen. Before Robot Man, the testing process took as long as five hours and production had to halt. But now the sample is placed in an electrode holder and current is applied. The spectrometer analyzes the spark that is produced and automatically records the exact percentage of each element in the specimen.

You’ve heard about the fabulous electronic brains and maybe you thought they were little more than ingenious scientific toys, doing immensely complex mathematical problems in a twinkling just for fun. Far from it. Their phenomenal powers are saving thousands of invaluable hours of working time for our nation’s scientists.

For example, there is Reac, a typical electronic brain, product of the Reeves Instrument Corp. For a long time, the aircraft industry had been trying to design an automatic pilot for helicopters but met problem after problem. Reac came to the rescue. There was one massive problem to be surmounted and officials estimated that, using the fastest possible manual methods, it would take 2,950 man days to solve it. And the cost would be $73,725. Reac worked it out in 109 man days at a cost of $3,240.

There are now about two dozen electronic brains in operation and they go under the fancy names of Univac, Eniac, Binac, Seac— the “ac” meaning “analog computer.” They are just about the closest thing to a human brain that man has yet created, working fundamentally on the same principles as the human mind. For instance, they possess memories, since they can store away an entire filing system of information automatically and click it out when needed. They even can exercise a kind of executive judgment, since they can figure out statistical possibilities.

And they work like greased mental lightning. Take, for example, Seac, the automatic computer of the Bureau of Standards in Washington. To test its speed, Dr. Samuel Alexander gave it a whopper of a problem not long ago: is 99,999,999,997 a prime number? That is, can it or can’t it be divided by any other number without leaving a remainder? Try it yourself. You’d have to divide 99,999,999,997 by 80,000 different numbers to find out. If you had a desk calculator and were reasonably expert in math, the job would take you about eight months. It took Seac exactly 30 minutes! Seac figured that 99,999,999,997 is a prime number!

Then there’s the wonder brain, Swac, which can breeze through 150 simultaneous algebraic equations, involving 4,000,000 individual arithmetic operations, in slightly under four hours.

Man’s ingenuity in creating robots is limitless. Believe it or not, there are even robot animals!

For instance, you might go for a stroll in the cool of the evening along a road near the English village of Taxted and come face to trunk with the world’s first robot elephant. It actually ambles along by itself, can flap its huge ears and wave its trunk. It’s useful too—can carry eight persons on its massive back.!

And also in England are the world’s smartest pair of tortoises—robot ones. Declares Dr. W. Grey Walter who created them as part of his studies of the human brain: “They run around with one another and waltz around the house. When you separate them, they roam around trying to find each other.” One, in fact, goes and comes in obedience to a whistle. And, to top it off, they both go scuttling toward a large battery to recharge themselves when they feel their operating currents getting low!

Probably the most famous robot animal is three-inch Theseus, the amazing mechanical mouse devised by Dr. Claude E. Shannon of the Bell Telephone Co. Dr. Shannon has placed Theseus in an enormously complicated maze and rigged up electrical connections. The idea is to see how fast the mouse can find its way out of the puzzle. The first time around, Theseus had trouble, but on the next trip he knew the way. He whizzed through in a matter of seconds. And this is the amazing part: the mouse can remember 1,000,000,000,000 different maze formations, once he’s learned them! Says Dr. Shannon: “The real significance of this mouse and maze lies in the four rather unusual operations it is able to perform. It can solve a problem by trial and error means, remember a solution and apply it when necessary at a later date, add new information to the solution already remembered, and forget one solution and learn a new one when the problem is changed.”

Put it all together and you reach the unassailable conclusion that there is virtually nothing the human mind and hand can perform that a robot won’t eventually be able to do as well or better. This should convince you:

John von Neumann of the Princeton University Institute of Advanced Study has just created an abstract model of a machine which could reproduce itself! The machine will collect parts from its environment and assemble them to produce a second machine of the same type. The new robot will then proceed to collect parts to create a third machine and so on.

Yes, the robot is here and more are coming. They will make your life easier, better, freer. It is one invasion civilization welcomes.

  1. MAKE: Blog says: August 7, 20062:41 pm

    The ROBOTS are coming! – 1953…

    Interesting look back, forward – at robotics and computers from Mechanix Illustrated – 1953 (self-driving cars, robot elephants, prime number crunching computers, automatic factories, automatic sewing machines, self replicating Von Neumann machines) -…

  2. […] Interesting look back, forward – at robotics and computers from Mechanix Illustrated – 1953 (self-driving cars, robot elephants, prime number crunching computers, automatic factories, automatic sewing machines, self replicating Von Neumann machines) – “Our civilization is being invaded by a horde of mechanical men who are determined to change our way of life. But there’s no need to worry. It’s all in the spirit of good fellowship.” Full article – Link. […]

  3. […] Here is a link to amuse you while I sleep. Modern Mechanix » The ROBOTS Are Coming! We’ve got tomorrow off, so I’ll try to be all pithy then. […]

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  5. John Savard says: January 25, 20098:38 pm

    The Rayac computer, which worries about mistakes, is actually the RAYDAC computer, which was installed at Point Mugu in California. It had a four-address instruction word, and mercury delay-line memory. It halted when an error was detected, which is presumably what inspired the claim about worrying.

  6. […] The ROBOTS Are Coming! (written December 1953) http://blog.modernmecha… […]

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